Nearly 1,200 baby Cape cormorants are currently being nursed and cared for by a rescue centre in Cape Town, South Africa after being abandoned by their parents on Robben Island last month. The seabirds are considered an endangered species, and were found starving on the island.
Although about 2,000 cormorants were taken to the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, more than 800 died due to weakness and dehydration during the trip to the rescue centre or soon after they arrived, AFP reported. In a statement, the foundation explained that when the birds were abandoned by their parents, they were too young to fend for themselves. The rest of the birds have recovered.
Meet the Cape Cormorant
The Cape cormorant is native to southern Africa and is abundant on the west coast. Cormorants appear to be black birds from a distance, but upon closer inspection actually have plumage with a bluish sheen. The plumage is iridescent in breeding adults. Interestingly, adult cormorants have turquoise eyes with blue beads on their eyelids — those are amazing bird eyes — while juveniles have grey eyes. Cormorants can also be distinguished by the yellow-orange gape at the base of their bills.
Their Parents Left. They Did Not Return.
It was not immediately clear that the chicks had been abandoned, according to the foundation. At first, experts thought that the adult birds had left Robben Island to fly further out to sea and cool down because of the hot weather. However, if this had been the case, the birds would have been seen rafting close to the island and they would have eventually returned to tend to their chicks when the temperature dropped. But they did not return.
Experts Believe the Seabirds’ Parents Left Because of the Lack of Food
The foundation’s research department believes that the lack of food could be the main reason the adults abandoned their chicks, although they are still investigating the incident.
“Cape cormorants feed mainly on anchovy (and to a smaller extent on sardines) and these small pelagic fish species are at very low levels at the moment,” said Katta Ludynia, the foundation’s research manager. “We are seeing dramatic population declines in all seabird species that rely on these fish species.”
This an Anomaly — For Now
Although the incident in an anomaly, experts at the foundation worry that the lack of sufficient food could have long-term consequences for the Cape cormorant in the future.
The west coast of southern Africa is home to the Benguela Current, a patch of cool, nutrient-rich water that generally allows small fish to flourish. But rising ocean temperatures due the climate crisis could hamper that productivity.
This past month has seen ocean temperatures around Robben Island up to 3.6 degrees Celsius above normal, according to U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data. Though it may just be driven by natural variability, it’s also a concerning sign of what could come as the world continues to heat up, disrupting the balance of ecosystems.
Foundation response manager Nicky Stander told AFP that if the amount of food continues to dwindle, abandonments are likely to become more common. Cormorants could even stop breeding all together, she said.
“We have been seeing emaciated birds coming into the centre for years,” Stander told AFP. “What we are scared of is that this is going to happen more and more in the future.”
Caring for the Cormorants Is a Lot of Work
Caring for the baby seabirds is a delicate operation. As explained by AFP, between 30 and 50 volunteers feed, weigh, and clean the cormorants every day. Since the chicks are not swimming, they need to be hydrated manually. This is done by slipping tubes into their beaks and giving them water. That’s an incredible amount of work to care for 1,200 chicks.
The youngest chicks are separated from the older ones, which are kept in a large enclosure when they can stretch their wings and swim. Younger chicks are kept in a nursery section. Since they aren’t old enough to eat on their own, they’re hand-fed small pieces of sardine and given water with a syringe.
Cape Cormorants Are Considered an Endangered Species
Cape cormorants are considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The global population is estimated to be 234,000 mature individuals. The IUCN cites the shortage of food due due to commercial overfishing as one of the primary threats to the species. Oil pollution is another threat, and it has already resulted in mass deaths of the seabirds in the past.
As if that wasn’t enough, cormorants have to worry about predators like the great white pelican, fur seal, sacred ibis, and kelp gull. Other threats include avian cholera and guano mining — and, of course, climate change.
The Foundation Is Asking for Donations to Help Care for the Birds
Caring for more than a thousand birds is not easy, nor is it cheap. The foundation is asking for donations to buy veterinary supplies and medication, among others, and volunteer to help support the endeavour.
“They certainly are eating us out of house and home,” Stander, the foundation response manager, told AFP.